She saved for last her most biting statement. At the end of our hour-long interview, I asked what was the worst problem our economy faced. “Skills mismatch!” she said.
Recently reelected Civil Service Association president, Mary Isaac explained: “The prime minister is a lawyer by profession. Most of his history has to do with law. But what portfolio does he have responsibility for? Possibly the most important of all. He has made himself Minister of Finance.”
She added: “His main advisor is Dr. James Fletcher, an agronomist with no experience in finance as far as the nation knows. This is obviously a lose-lose combination. But they are the ones up there deciding where the country goes in terms of economic development.”
Isaac noted that at an ECCB meeting the CSA attended last year, skills mismatch was an issue raised by the IMF. Among attendees was the prime minister.
Isaac believes the mismanagement of the country’s finances and a poor sense of what’s important are also contributing factors to the country’s current situation; a place where unemployment is at an all-time high (over 23%) and $75 million is now needed to improve the country’s fiscal standing.
“What is happening now is that the middle class is being eroded, it is almost gone,” she said. “You have the rich and a heavy base of the poor because of the bad management of the economy. As someone recently pointed out, when the poor get hungry enough they are left just one choice. They eat the rich. Which is another way of saying they turn to whatever means necessary, including violent crime!”
She said her failure to attend the second of two meetings with the prime minister and his Cabinet in order to address wages was a consensus decision.
“This was not just my decision. It was an executive decision. We believe the prime minister was wrong when he put in the budget document a five percent pay cut for workers before consulting us. And as far as we know, the budget was passed on April 30. So what’s there to discuss now?”
Asked whether the CSA, representing over 3000 workers, had looked at other options available to the government, Isaac nodded affirmatively. The CSA, the Police Welfare Association and the Nurses Association had prepared a document, she said.
“We looked at cutting down on the number of overseas missions. These missions have very high expenditure, so we suggested that in some instances costs could be shared with other OECS member states.”
She took a swipe at the “consultancy syndrome” that she and her colleagues say have plagued the Kenny Anthony government.
“In the public service there are so many consultants, it is difficult to keep track,” she said. “What exactly do they do? In most cases their long-completed reports are on shelves just collecting dust. Then new consultants come back to us in the public service, and we give them the information to compile new reports.”
The CSA leader also pointed to a jump from six Grade 21 positions to nine in the last two years. These so-called “Super PS’s” receive an annual emolument of EC$153,972. Isaac is of the view that unsustainable work programs like STEP are also hurting and calls for more money to be diverted into agriculture. “We should be doing more to create a more skilled workforce,” she says.
The union boss believes some of the people complaining about productivity should look in the mirror. There are few checks and balances for permanent secretaries and supervisors, she says.
“On the other hand we had a reward scheme within the service which was taken away. There is also no room for upward mobility since persons are being brought in from outside the service to fill the top spots.”
Another problem: “The disunity within the Trade Union Federation and the divide and rule tactics employed last year by the government’s negotiating team.
“You started negotiating last year with the TUF. Then behind their backs you pulled the various unions aside, even signing with some on Holy Saturday. If you were acting in good faith, then the more prudent thing would be to say that you had started negotiating with one umbrella body and would stick to that.
“So right now that dishonesty has turned around and bitten the government. Since you cannot afford to give us four percent, because you were saying you would have to borrow to pay it, keep it. We will take zero. But that should be across the board. Four percent was forced on us last year and now you want back five percent. That does not make sense!” Isaac says.
Mary Isaac says the CSA will only sit down with government if the government makes it possible to discuss the issues for the next fiscal year. Additionally, she would like to see a properly structured TUF that represents all trade unions in a more equitable manner, and properly constituted.
“There is also a scientific formula for wage negotiations that we would like to see implemented instead of all this fighting and confrontations,” Isaac said finally. “As it stands now, the politicians are instigating the same fighting among the unions we see at election time between red and yellow. Whether or not this serves government’s purpose, it can never be good for the country. What we need now is real harmony, genuine open dialogue and, well, honesty. This is no time for hiding behind smoke screens!”